It seems such a natural fit — convertibles and South Florida — you might think that it would have been the first thing to come to mind when the board of the Southern Automotive Media Association (SAMA), which is based in Miami, began mulling over ideas for another event to add to its yearly calendar.
When the organization was formed in March 2007, the first thing it did was work with the South Florida Auto Dealers Association to coordinate an awards program for the South Florida International Auto Show.
That fall, SAMA selected its first “Star of the Show” of the event, which draws more than 600,000 visitors annually in the fall to the Miami Beach Convention Center — the Cadillac CTS.
The following year, SAMA held its first Rides-N-Smiles event, treating pediatric patients from Baptist Children’s Hospital who suffer from chronic childhood illness such as cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s and Colitis, and brain injuries, to a day of rides around the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course in luxury performance cars.
In the past couple of years, that event has grown to add families from Miami Children’s Hospital and continues to grow thanks to the efforts of Bill Adam, SAMA vice president. The 2012 Rides-N-Smiles is scheduled for Nov. 10 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But always in the back of everyone’s minds was the idea of a third event for the spring to balance out the schedule. It would be loosely based on the Texas Truck Rodeo competition that the Texas Auto Writers Association conducts in the Lone Star State, but featuring another automotive segment. Though pickups and SUVs are popular in South Florida, especially when it comes to towing boats, they don’t really fit into the area’s image.
Consideration was given to luxury cars. After all, you can’t drive up and down Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive without encountering at least one and usually several exotics that make you stop and go “whoa.” That idea never got off the ground.
Then thoughts turned to the evolving “Green Car” market of hybrids and electric vehicles. But that didn’t take off either.
Finally, at a breakfast board meeting, someone broached the idea to feature a convertible competition, and that got unanimous and enthusiastic approval.
Thus “Topless in Miami” came into being. From the name, you might think this meeting was held during cocktail hour, but coffee, orange juice and tea were the only beverages on the table.
The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne also was the unanimous choice for the headquarters as the hotel not only is in an exotic beach location, but has a big auxiliary entrance that would serve as a staging area for the cars. A convenient, short driving area along Crandon Boulevard that presents several great photo backdrops is available right there as well.
It works this way: SAMA members take the cars out for quick spins and score them on design, driving experience, and the ease of raising and lowering the tops. One-button operations that secure themselves get high marks. Several factory representatives are in attendance to answer questions and ride along to offer additional information if the media member desires.
The process begins in the morning and continues through late afternoon when all the scores are tallied, and winners in four categories plus an overall Convertible of the Year are announced during a banquet that evening.
It is a fun to participate, but it’s not exactly an easy task. The quality of the 17 vehicles entered in the most recent (June 14) second annual competition reflects the strides the industry as a whole has made in recent years in overall quality and design.
The other difficulty is getting the vehicles into a proper category as well as defining the categories. Luxury, small and sports cars are somewhat obvious segments, but a fourth presented a bit of a challenge. The decision was made to classify convertibles with four-passenger capacity as “family” vehicles. It worked out great in 2011 when the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet was the winner of the “family” category, but classifying the winning 2012 Chevrolet Camaro as a “family convertible” might be stretching things a bit.
But those are details that are to be worked out in the future. The turnout of 71 SAMA members for 2012, nearly 20 more than the number of members who took part in the first year’s event, would seem to be evidence of the enthusiasm SAMA members have for Topless in Miami.
Other winners for 2012 are the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster as Convertible of the Year; the Jaguar XKR-S as luxury convertible of the year; Camaro as best family convertible; Audi TT S-Tronic Roadster as sports car convertible, and the Gucci edition of the Fiat 500C as best small convertible.
The Fiat was a repeat winner in the category from the inaugural event in 2011, when the Audi R8 Spyder won the voting for 2011 Convertible of the Year. Other winners in 2011 were the BMW 650i, Chevy Corvette, and, as mentioned, the Murano CrossCabriolet.
But considering the support from the manufacturers and the turnout of the membership, a sixth winner on a bright, sunny South Florida day was SAMA itself.